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Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Published 3 February 2016

What’s it all about?

It’s 1927. In a Chicago recording studio four black musicians and two white studio executives await the arrival of the legendary blues singer Ma Rainey. As they bicker, moan, taunt and tease, stories are told and bets are made, their thick-skinned bravado only stripped away as Ma – not only the mother of the blues but also the mother of the divas – finally makes an appearance.

August Wilson’s dazzling play is elegantly loquacious, a revealing insight into a time of change and friction when black people could be respected musicians but were still unable to cash a cheque without being accused of theft, when white studio executives pandered to their black stars but called all the shots.

While the plot may be minimal, Wilson’s drama is a riveting – especially with a cast this strong – historical snapshot.

Who’s in it?

Sharon D Clarke leads the roost as the utterly imposing Ma Rainey. Dressed in furs and jewels, she is completely undirectable, terrifyingly short tempered and an utter joy to watch. From the moment Clarke walks on stage the atmosphere of the auditorium changes, her performance a masterclass in confidence and swagger.

For all Clarke’s presence, the four musicians, while meant to be anonymous and quietly on call for Rainey’s every whim, can’t help but steal the show. Lucian Msamati, Giles Terera, O-T Fagbenle and Clint Dyer are electrifying as the combustible quartet who splice the art of rehearsal with the art of cutting each other down to size, taking only brief pauses for silence when one of them takes a turn to tell a story the horror of which leaves you, and their fellow musicians, reeling.

What should I look out for?

Or listen out for, in this case, as Wilson’s dazzling play has music running through its veins and rightly so.

You’d never know it, but only some of the cast play their instruments live. Hats off to Musical Director Tim Sutton who ensures this division is seamless.

Singing they all do, however, and audiences won’t be disappointed by the insanely talented company. The play is in part a homage to the power of the blues and you’ll feel suitably moved and revitalised as a result.  

In a nutshell?

Witty, passionate, soulful and devastating, Dominic Cooke’s elegant and vibrant staging brings the mother of the blues to the stage in a mother of a production.

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Will I like it?

If you’re looking for an accomplished company performing riveting drama, look no further. Like another of this week’s openings, Red Velvet, it feels like an important story that needed to be told, not only entertaining but offering audiences the chance to witness a snapshot of history, as devastating as the results may be.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is playing until 18 May. You can book tickets through the National Theatre’s website.

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